With Halt and Catch Fire, AMC hopes for another Mad Men
|Photo by Danny Liao|
|Halt and Catch Fire co-creators Chris Rogers (left) and Chris Cantwell in their Los Angeles offices.|
A tent covers the trendy hotel's courtyard, forming a well-appointed cocoon for the occupants of those SUVs and other guests of this semi-secret party. Actors Lee Pace and Mackenzie Davis have staked out valuable real estate between the heaters and the bar. Scoot McNairy, fresh off his small-but-searing turn in 12 Years a Slave, is inside, slugging a Lone Star and talking about the things he blows up on his Texas ranch. Steve Wozniak, the Apple co-founder, is around, having been invited to moderate a panel. John Leguizamo is here too, for reasons not readily apparent.
Planted at the center is actress Kerry Bishé, her hair a deep red, her smile tight but electric. Bishé is best known for her work in Scrubs, which was canceled during her only season. But she recently watched Ben Affleck accept a Best Picture Oscar for Argo, in which she played a hostage trying to keep her husband (played by McNairy, it so happens) from foiling their escape. More movie offers followed, but it's the offer that led her here that seems to hold the most promise.
The SXSW Film Festival, like Bishé, recognizes TV's currently superior storytelling promise, so this year it included screenings of new shows. Among them was Halt and Catch Fire, a 1980s period drama about a group of Texas engineers who battle IBM for PC supremacy. It's a show AMC and its fans hope can fill the meth-and-Manhattan-soaked void left by Breaking Bad and, soon enough, Mad Men. If it does, Bishé -- and Pace, and McNairy, and Davis -- will be the new household names flying AMC's flag.
As she chats with a friend, Bishé is joined by one of the show's creators, screenwriter Chris Cantwell. Cantwell, nursing a beer, is half there at best. On top of a whirlwind day that he says felt like "your own wedding" -- "You spend all that time thinking about it and then it's over" -- he is in the middle of writing the show's season finale, a task that, for a screenwriter, runs in the background no matter how many former Scrubs stars are in the fore.
Cantwell is making small talk with Bishé's manager. His attentive posture probably gives her comfort, like the health of her client's IMDB page is safely in the hands of a veteran. Then she asks Cantwell about his career.
He explains, with neither pride nor shame, that Halt is the first show he's created. In fact, it's the first show he's ever written on. Actually, technically, it's his first real screenwriting job.
The manager's face flushes with some combination of awe and terror. She turns to Bishé.
"Do you know what he was doing when he sold this show?"
"Yeah," Bishé says, turning to Cantwell. "You worked in development for Disney."
Cantwell smiles. Now Bishé is confused.
"You worked in development for Disney," she says again, but this with the faint hiss of leaking confidence.
The circle goes quiet, and the rain pounds, and Cantwell lets the moment hang, wringing tension from it like the development executive he never was.
Cantwell did work at Disney, Bishé was right about that, but he was not in story development. He was a marketing guy, a branding stooge, the guy making character videos for YouTube and making sure the pervs and racists kept their distance from the princesses' Facebook pages. In fact, by 2010, six years after finishing film school, he was technically a marketing executive -- an even worse distinction for an alleged writer, because it meant he was good at it.
One branding stunt was so good it nearly rescued him. Late in 2009, as Pixar prepared to release Toy Story 3, Cantwell produced a fake 1983 ad for the movie's creepy villain, Lots-o'-Huggin' Bear, even running it through a VCR to make it feel dated. He slyly posted it to YouTube and watched confusion rain.